The outcome of the General Election has significant implications for the voluntary and community sector (VCS). At both a local and national level, it must now respond - in a constructive but principled manner.
Over the next two years, there will be deeper public expenditure cuts than over the last five years, and even by 2018/19, it is unlikely that there will be any major easing of austerity economics and public expenditure. This means less money for the VCS from the public sector, both through grants and/or contract payments. It also means that the VCS will find itself under even more pressure to step in to continue to provide important public services, and to support their users and their communities.
The Government's proposals for a further £12bn cuts to benefits will inevitably hit some of the most vulnerable and poorest members of society. This will further add to the pressures on many VCS organisations and their beneficiaries, and I would most certainly predict a growth in the usage of food banks and advice services.
The Conservative Government is unlikely to repeal or even amend the Lobbying Act (the so-called 'Gagging Act'). Indeed, there is the prospect of still further legislation and regulation to curtail exiting freedoms, and in particular the 'voice' role of charities.
There will be much talk from ministers about the "Big Society", or whatever new term is used to describe this former 2010 election narrative. And whilst it would be wrong to ignore or challenge much of this narrative, it would also be wrong to fail to point out that the "Big Society" on its own simply cannot be a real alternative to a vibrant and well-funded public sector. A strong civil society requires a strong supportive public sector.
Change (and likely, pretty radical change) for the VCS is inevitable. There will be VCS organisations that, however sadly, will fail and fold; others will merge; but new ones will also be created. Still others will change their business models and roles.
It is the duty (and indeed, critical responsibility) of every VCS board of trustees, their executives and the national sector representative bodies to reflect carefully and deeply on the implications of this election result and the likely policy direction of the new Government. They should also examine very carefully why the electorate voted as they did - not just re the votes for the winning parties, but the votes across the political spectrum. The local differences and the motivations behind them offer much valuable intelligence for the political parties but also for the VCS.
It does seem to me that the distance between much of the population and politicians, especially those in Westminster (perhaps Scotland is different - but that is another story), is very large and has not been aided by this either this election campaign or its outcome. Accordingly, there is real opportunity (if not an imperative) for civil society and the VCS in particular, to act as the voice of the marginalised, and communities more generally. I know this is easier to write and advise than to do, but the sector must now undertake a serious debate on its role in a market-orientated society, given a government committed to a smaller state, and where the public is patently not enamoured of politicians.
The Government is clearly committed to extending the role of outsourcing, contracting public services, creating new non-traditional public services such as Free Schools and, I suspect, new models for social and health care. For some services, there could be more user choice too. I urge against immediate and total rejection and opposition to some greater VCS provision but every organisation will have to decide whether or not it wishes to bid for public contracts and on what terms. Having said that, even more strongly, I urge the sector not to allow themselves to become vehicles for the marketisation of public services and/or allow itself to be used as cover for an ever growing role for the business sector; the sector should argue principally for collective not market provision, and for social action and social solidarity.
The national and local representative sector bodies need to argue cogently and without hesitation for the pursuit of social value ahead of cheapness when services are being procured. And also for procurement and collaborative arrangements that enable VCS organisations to bid for and/or run services in ways that play to its strengths, and that secures positive outcomes for users and communities. The sector should push heavily for 'genuine' strategic commissioning and against price-driven procurement. This means an immediate and positive/constructive dialogue with the Government, local government and the wider public sector.
The new Government has stated that it is committed to localism, and greater devolution and decentralisation to local government, and especially to sub-regions, including city regions. The VCS has a huge role to play in this. Specifically, it should argue the case for being involved in the governance arrangements that will be required to underpin such devolution and decentralisation. It should also be making a vigorous case for "double devolution", with power and resources being devolved from town halls to communities.
As the new Government embarks on its programmes for economic growth, the VCS has, , a particular duty to make the case for investment in social capital to accompany investment in infrastructure. Surely it is hard to argue against the fact that strong economies require strong communities, and that increasing inequality leads inevitably to weaker economies - and potentially debilitating social disruption.
The new Government will shortly introduce its manifesto, and the other parties will no doubt offer their alternatives, as well as (in the case of Labour and the Liberal Democrats), be considering how best to re-invent themselves for 2020 and beyond. I fervently hope that this vision of the future, from whatever party, will involve a strong civil society including a vibrant voluntary and community sector, effective localism, social justice and reformed public services.
The voluntary and community sector and its local and national representative bodies must immediately, seize the opportunity to influence the political process and discourse - locally, sub-regionally and nationally. This requires the VCS to:
- be self-confident
- defend and promote its independence
- hold on to mission and principles, but being willing to change as necessary
- make values and evidence based interventions
- provide a strong and effective voice for beneficiaries
- advocate for individuals and communities
- campaign without fear, and oppose and seek to change government policy, where and when necessary
- constructively offer ideas to the new Government on how to implement its policies in sensible and fair ways; and where necessary, promote alternative policies and solutions
- develop and promote new public service models and collaborative arrangements between the sectors
- be ready to change (but on its terms, not the Government's
- seek alternative sources of funding and build sustainable organisations
Post 7th May 2015, I am in no doubt that the need for an ambitious and active voluntary and community sector is greater than ever, and its contribution can and should be greater than ever - and actually, would have been whatever the result.
We need a VCS ready and able to stand up for fairness, social justice and communities; and offering hope and alternative solutions - not just opposition. The sector has to do this whilst ensuring its own survival.
This requires sophisticated yet principled reflection, constructive debate, and new ideas.